The National Catholic Review
The theological project of James Alison

James Alison belongs on any short list of the most important living Catholic theologians. He has met and perhaps exceeded the high expectations that arose from his first book, Knowing Jesus (1993), and his most substantial work of constructive theology, The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes (1998). For a theologian under no tenure constraints and without a university position, Father Alison has managed to produce steadily and predictably. He has written seven books, and his style has changed from academic to almost breezy, as if he simply transcribed his lectures. His writings suggest a man in no great hurry; he often lingers for pages with an image or analogy to help unpack a biblical text.

Accompanying this shift in style has been a turn toward the theology of sexual orientation, beginning with Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay (2001). His three subsequent books—On Being Liked (2004), Undergoing God (2006) and Broken Hearts & New Creations (2010)—have given considerable space to the underlying assumptions of official Catholic teachings about same-sex attraction and actions, and have a created a new and devoted readership. The commitment of Father Alison to a kind of popular theology has made his more recent work accessible without sacrificing depth or theological creativity.

Father Alison’s lack of university affiliation has led many readers to wonder about both his biography and his current location. He grew up in an evangelical family in England, where his father worked for the Conservative Party. After converting to Catholicism in 1977, he joined the Dominicans in 1981 at age 22. He subsequently wrote his dissertation under the supervision of the Jesuit faculty in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. He left the Dominicans in 1995 and since then has remained mostly in Brazil. He is still a priest.

Father Alison’s understanding of the human person has been deeply influenced by René Girard, the French anthropologist and literary theorist. Girard developed what he called “mimetic theory,” the belief that human desires are learned from others rather than forged within a person, and this results in discontent, rivalries and conflicts. In response to this social tension, according to Girard, the community identifies and rejects a scapegoat, and the pattern continues. Girard has applied this theory to Christian theology, and many others have followed in his footsteps. Even before Father Alison took on this project, there was Raymund Schwager, Gil Bailie and Robert Hamerton-Kelly. Yet the capacity of Father Alison to highlight the urgent relevance of mimetic theory for self-understanding has no parallel, and his ability to gain converts deserves generous reporting. (Indeed, a recent writer on Girard noted making three “false starts” with mimetic theory before everything came together upon a chance encounter with Father Alison’s On Being Liked.)

Mimetic theory remains the central axis around which Father Alison’s theology turns, although his time with the Dominicans, especially Herbert McCabe, O.P., has left a certain “Thomist” residue in his thought. (Christopher Ruddy made this observation in Commonweal in 2009.) Perhaps the best way to position his work as the mainstream, moderately conservative theology that he claims it to be is to highlight its parallels with another astute observer of the human heart, St. Augustine. The deep and continual introspection that made Augustine the great forerunner of the modern self also marks Father Alison as a great beneficiary (and critic) of this legacy.

The Place of Sin

Mimetic theory, especially as Father Alison has elaborated it, offers perhaps the most interesting support for Augustine’s theology of original sin, which the Catholic Church more or less adopted wholesale at the Council of Trent. At first this link seems unlikely, given Augustine’s insistence that original sin is transfused propagatione, non imitatione (“by propagation, not imitation”), implying an almost genetic transmission. For Augustine this meant that we share in Adam’s sin as a physical inheritance rather than as a shared experience.

If mimetic theory teaches us anything, it is that we do not begin with a blank slate. Further, our larger communities, built on victims hidden from sight, maintain traces of an original violence. Thus our desire, ordained by God as pacifically mimetic and fundamentally good, becomes the conduit for actual sins on account of the sinful communities that donate to us our sense of being. We are far too communal and too inclined to be locked into others to avoid being infected, ontologically, by sin. Throughout his work, Father Alison offers examples both trivial and serious to demonstrate the fundamental, Augustinian truth about our inherited identity and communal sinfulness.

Father Alison also argues that the resurrection of Jesus as the forgiving victim makes the doctrine of original sin possible. It is no surprise that the expulsion from Eden (Genesis 3), though largely ignored in the Old Testament, receives serious attention in the writings of St. Paul. Augustine, the great inheritor of Paul, struggled intensely to understand the relationship between the old Adam and the new Adam. It is only after the salvific revelation of the risen Lord that humans have the capacity to understand how deeply enmeshed they were in the proclivities and systems of violence that led to the death of the sinless second Adam. There is thus no chasm between the development of the Western doctrine of original sin and the message of the Gospel.

The church calls Augustine “the doctor of grace.” No contemporary Catholic theologian remains more tethered to an understanding of grace as gratuitous than does Father Alison. The very language he uses to describe an authentic encounter with Jesus contrasts “undergoing” with “grasping” (see especially Undergoing God). If God’s gift is always a self-gift, then Father Alison correctly deduces that any real encounter entails a kind of passivity. Like the jolt of falling in love, it happens to us. This necessary quality of religious experience follows from an anthropology that describes the disinclination of humans to relate peacefully to others. We experience the divine in a radically different manner because Jesus, the forgiving victim, comes to us in a way so unlike our expectations of divine justice. Grace, freely given, reorders the universe and remakes the community we call church. Unlike previous communities in which the bond among members forges itself through those it excludes and scapegoats, the gratuity of the resurrection allows for a community shaped by forgiven-forgivers.

New Interpretations

Father Alison asks his readers to linger with images, or passages from Scripture, in a way that makes the shape of reading such passages conform to the shape of a graced “undergoing.” Even biblical formulas require deconstruction of the different ways that we perceive faith as a kind of work and thus miss the massive shift God calls us to undergo. Perhaps Eph 2:8 is the hidden verse informing the work of Father Alison: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God.” If a person regards faith—either the coming into it or the maintaining of it—as some kind of achievement, then the person remains beholden to an economy without grace. The anti-Pelagian writings of Augustine, which even his enthusiastic readers often eschew, show the same urgency to understand grace in the right way.

Like Augustine, Father Alison understands the pressing need to free Scripture from being a source of scandal for believers. Both argue for a particular hermeneutic to aid ordinary believers and preachers of Scripture. Augustine lays out a set of principles in On Christian Teaching. Perhaps the most important of these comes at the end of the first book, where he commands readers to locate the twofold love command within any particular passage in order to understand it properly. Father Alison talks less reverently of Scripture, speaking of it as “the big bad book” and of certain passages as “texts of terror.” Significantly, he does not run away from difficult passages like Judges 3 and Romans 1, in which God punishes disobedience by handing people over to violence and sexual impurity, respectively. Instead, he uses the hermeneutical principle given by Jesus on the road to Emmaus, in addition to context provided by historical and earlier biblical writings, in order to illustrate the deeper meaning of scandalous texts that many of us would rather pretend do not exist. As a constructive theologian, he models a creative and imaginative reading of Scripture that offers great fecundity for present and future Alisonians, should they take up this mantle.

Father Alison is also an underrated ecclesiologist. Perhaps his greatest legacy as a theologian will not be his Girardian rereading of the doctrine of original sin or of the Resurrection, but as one who helps us imagine a new way of being church, particularly through his category of “aristocratic belonging.” According to Father Alison, the people of God should understand themselves as “aristocratic” in the sense that God loves them unconditionally and showers gifts upon them. Maybe it requires a Brit via Eton and Oxford to tell Americans how to be aristocratic Catholics. Central for any healthy ecclesial being is finding a way to exist in the church without being dominated by the forms of belonging that divide between “good” and “bad.” Some people in the church have justified a deeply rooted notion of who is good and bad in the church by focusing on the disproportionate power wielded by the bad people, defining themselves or their group over against another.

This kind of psychology finds no room in Father Alison’s musings on the church. He exposes the patterns of belonging that undo ecclesial bonds instead of fostering them. Father Alison suggests the image of aristocrats at a dinner party who refuse to think that the wait staff matters in any real way. He does not mean that we adopt an attitude of superiority, but rather that as we grow in realization of being truly liked by a God who loved us first, we can become less reflexively reactive to every statement and pronouncement from the “mediators” of faith (bishops and theologians, for example), which can at times seem like a stumbling block. We can instead learn to relax into a space given to an heir, not a laborer, and learn to form a real community of reconciliation and generosity. If it took an Augustine to rid the church of an inclination to rigid perfectionism and asceticism, then perhaps it will take a little more Father Alison to wean the church from a violent sacred to which it has been tethered, in large and small ways, for far too long.

Grant Kaplan is an associate professor of systematic theology at Saint Louis University, St. Louis, Mo.


Bruce Snowden | 5/22/2014 - 7:41pm

Grant Kaplan says in, “Renewing The Tradition,” that Mimetic theory offers support for Augustine’s theology of Original Sin. According to Rene Girard progenitor of the Mimetic theory, human desires are learned from others rather than from personal engenderment. Continue quoting Kaplan, Augustine insisted that Original Sin is transfused “by propagation, not imitation” He further points out for Augustine this meant we share in Adam’s sin as a physical inheritance, not as a shared experience. Sounds Mimetic to me.

My question: Why can’t Original Sin be a shared experience of a physical inheritance? As we know, that which is propagated can be imitated, or are we to believe that this is true except in Original Sin? If so, why? I seem to be questioning not only Girard and Alison, but also Augustine. Who am I to challenge them?

Michael Barberi | 5/20/2014 - 4:17pm

Thanks Fr. Tim for your skype conversation with Fr. Alison.

I have become very interested in Fr. Alison's perspectives on theology and will be reading his works as part of my continuing education in our faith. I also want to thank Tim Huegerich for several links he has posted on this blog relative to various aspects of Fr. Alison's thought…and of course, I thank America Magazine for the article about Fr. Alison's work.

My interest and focus has always been on moral theology and that also means Scripture and interpretation. However, Fr. Alison's introduces a new way to seeing and understanding the Spirit of the Word and the gift of grace. I particularly liked his perspectives on original sin, grace, victim, and sexual orientation. I also liked Fr. Alison's analogy when he talked about those invited to the great banquet. The message is not a focus on the obedience to rules, as in which waiters are better than others based on proper waiter etiquette, but on the meaning and enjoyment of the living food that is being prepared for us all by the great chef.

I must admit that I did not "get Fr. Alison" from my first reading of this article. However, when I listened to your Skype with Fr. Alison, after I read an article by Fr. Alison (thanks to Tim), I then "reread" the article. It was only at that point that I truly was hit with a feeling like a first love. Now, onward to learn more.

Thanks for this once again.

Tim Huegerich | 5/20/2014 - 11:21pm

I'm so glad you found my comments helpful! Thank you for letting me know. I can definitely relate to that feeling you describe. (Perhaps you've already found it, but an essay in which Alison expands on the banquet analogy is here: )

Michael Barberi | 5/21/2014 - 7:53pm


Thanks for the new link about the banquet analogy.

I purchased James Alison's online course.

Bruce Snowden | 5/21/2014 - 7:26am

Tim - I'm reading the Alison site you offered and I'm shaken in a positive way! What a crushing critique of the Church that I love so dearly, the soul-bending self-idolatry of its "waiters," but in its collapse the real Jesus and the real Church is being perceived. How different! How enlightening! Faith is strengthened and even though it turns the Church me, (us) on our heads I like what I'm seeing and wonder how the "waiters some in miters" could be so far off the beaten track identifiable through the footprints of Jesus thereon. I have to read and reread until I totally get it! Thanks for the site.

Bruce Snowden | 5/20/2014 - 3:19pm

Hi Mr. Reidy (Tim) I listened as best I could to your Skype interview of Fr. Alison but it kept losing sound and movement so I missed a lot. Fr. Alison's espousal of homosexuality as something not intrinsically disordered, which places that view in director contradiction to Catholic Magesterial teaching was loud and clear. I have to think more about that position for while mitigating circumstances and factors may lessen, even remove culpability, it is certainly a "disordered" attraction. I'm not a theologian so possibly my opinion expressed here and elsewhere could be incorrect. Is it possible to get a scripted copy of your interview? Thanks for cluing me in.

Bruce Snowden | 5/16/2014 - 9:00pm

Hi Michael, Thanks for joining in. Your anthropological knowledge is encyclopedic and riveting! Obviously your skill in addressing that type of issue far exceeds mine, so please allow me to respond in a manner with which I am comfortable, described as you may wish.

With God, time is not a factor as within the Divine economy there is neither past, nor future, only the present – the here and now. So whether the implantation of an immortal soul into what evolved into a human person happened 80,000, 150,000, 200,000 years ago, or where it happened, or how, perhaps some here, some there, is at best only incidental. As Scripture reminds, with God one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day, the passing of what we call time unimportant as God views immediately as “finished” whatever result is in mind. Everything exists in the NOW.

The evolutionary process, an agent of God, (God works through the agencies of persons, places, things) and accomplishes whatever it set out to do, and is still ongoing, as physical science shows that new creations are still happening throughout the incalculable fling of the cosmos. Jesus once said a curious thing, “My Father works even now.” The prime meaning of course has to do with sanctification of the People of God, begun with Adam and Eve, but there is I believe, a secondary meaning as well, having to do with the material universe in which the People of God live not just a spiritual life, but a material one as well. And so it has always been

Regarding our First Parents. It is my theory that, at a moment chosen by God to do what he saw as already fulfilled, human measurements of no consequence, he selected from the existing gene pool a man and a woman to become our First Parents of the initial First Family of the People of God, gifted graciously as was the Blessed Virgin Mary, accommodated to their assigned missions. Through Revelation we discover that God’s Family continued its development down to the Church, which is the most perfect fulfillment of what began with Adam and Eve.

The question may arise as to what happened to the Family of Man following endowment of an immortal soul, no matter when how, or where. There came a moment when endowment became possible collaborative to the plan of God. At that point and ever thereafter humanity exercised a morally up or down choice, as noted by St. Paul who asserts that the choice to virtue or sin is “written on the fleshly tablets of the heart.” Desire to do good, and avoid evil was the prerequisite towards human spiritual fulfillment allowing all to assume membership in the Family of God, effecting a model of what would be later called, “Baptism by desire.” Desire does count as noted by Alison.

This incomplete explanation with loose ends is the best I can do. Michael, I hope this makes some sense to you.

Michael Barberi | 5/16/2014 - 9:50pm

Hi Bruce,

Thanks for your comments. They do make sense but as you can appreciate there are many questions and mysteries.

As I mentioned, the exact year when Adam and Eve entered earth, from the Fall, and possessed a soul is not that important. It is the sequence of events of modern human history based on our growing knowledge of genetics, supported in part by archeology, that posit questions.

The Catholic Church supports a theory and belief called "theistic evolution", which is sometimes called evolutionary creation, whereby God created and evolution occurred. In other words, human beings may have descended by a so-called Adam and Eve (e.g., that we traced though genetics) but the Hand of God was required for the production of a human soul. Thus, the answers to the questions I proposed may not be able to be answered scientifically but only philosophically and theologically by faith and revelation. Thus, I am proposing one answer to my own questions. Nevertheless, these questions, and my answer, do pose problems.

One problem is whether all humans were created by God with a soul and are thus children of God. This is the obvious question when we say that Adam and Eve were the first parents of modern humans. Genesis as well as the OT is a story about God and the Jewish people. There is some mention of other humans during Biblical times, such as the Egyptians, but they are for the most part considered pagans.

Nevertheless, from ancient times to the present day there are humans who have lived and continue to live in parts of the world that have never, ever, knew about what we call the Judeo-Christian religion. Are these not people of God and descendants of Adam and Eve? If so, why is it that God only revealed HIs word to the Jews and then by Christ, through his apostles, to the some gentiles? For much of the first thousand or more years, Christianity was limited to the Middle East and Europe.

This is why I honor and respect most religions and do not believe that the RCC is the only religion that has the fullness of truth and all other religions only possess the partial truth. If I am mistaken, then those of other religions, with only a partial truth, would seem to lack something important to their salvation. Of course, the Church would say that God is merciful and understanding and no one really knows how He will judge us. It is a mystery.

I don't lose any sleep over such questions. However, this still leaves many unanswered questions such as: if a religion only possesses a partial truth, does this mean that every tenant and teaching of their religion, that disagrees with the RCC, is the area where they possess a partial and incomplete truth? This is what we are taught, but I seriously doubt it.

Incidentally, having a choice to do good and avoid evil is a moral principle of most religions. The issue is what is good and evil, and right and wrong behavior? Is it what the RCC says it is?

Bruce Snowden | 5/19/2014 - 8:46am

To Tim and Mike, an addendum: Will this help or further complicate an already complicated discussion on Adam and Eve et al? Seeking to clarify a little especially what I have tried to say in my several back and forth postings, every response from others stimulating, let me suggest hypothetically that, at the precise moment of endowment determined by Divine Intent, immortal soul implantation happened simultaneously wherever proper recipients resided, indelibly marking the already existing post animal-type soul with immortal capacity, at which point the human ability to DESIRE God commenced. This made possible a kind of Salvation by Desire decision, morally akin to what would later be called Baptism by Desire for all who through no personal culpability for one reason or the other, were unable to accept the salvific revelation of Universal Redemption by Christ through Baptism by Water. Does this say something useful, or is it embarrassingly simplistic?

Michael Barberi | 5/19/2014 - 5:04pm


I read Tim's link, and while I also am not an expert, the church's explanation, e.g., JP II comments as referred to in Tim's link, leave many unanswered questions.

I agree that God created humans and the universe. But how this happened is a mystery. A few more questions:

1. When God created humans in His image, did He instill into all humans a practical reason that can participate in Divine law by grace, and by doing so do they have a desire for God and also recognize and grasp the truth? If so, does this apply to all modern humans that never heard of God's Word? If many humans never heard of God's Word, how do they attain eternal life?

2. Are the plurality of religions in our world God's Providential Plan?

3. Is there a universal "natural law" (created by God) that all humans can recognize, understand and live by? If so, then how do we explain the differences about what is right and wrong across world cultures, societies and religions?

I believe that the truth is constantly "emerging" especially with respect to moral laws. It may also be emerging with respect to certain aspects of our faith. Make no mistake about what I am saying. Such questions and mysteries don't prevent me from building a relationship with Christ. It also does not inhibit me from my desire to love God and neighbor. However, like most arguments about complex issues, there is much room for development.

I do not have answers to these questions. However, I am perplexed why another human person who is faithful to their religion cannot have eternal life if they live by certain moral norms that are condemned by the RCC, but are not condemned by their faith (e.g, contraception, divorce and remarriage, same-sex marriages).

Bruce Snowden | 5/19/2014 - 8:51pm

Hi Mike - St. Paul tells us that, "The foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men." I believe it, so respectfully, allow me to use the "foolishness of God" as response to your questions reflective of the " wisdom of men" certainly valid as is the "foolishness of God." Revelation in the lower case as in "private revelation" tells us according to St. Faustina Kowalska, in her "Divine Mercy" revelations, that Jesus told her, he comes at the hour of death to everyone offering a final opportunity to say "Yes, I believe." If true that answers all the complexities of human investigations and studies, reducing all riddles within enigmas that human investigations and studies generate, as useful as they can be, to the awestruck response of a child looking at a star studded sky saying, "Wow! My Daddy did this!" Mike, when all is said and done, that's where I stand.

Michael Barberi | 5/20/2014 - 2:57pm


I admire your faith and I believe in the mercy and grace of God…for all. That is where I stand.

Bruce Snowden | 5/19/2014 - 8:54pm

Hi Tim, Thanks for your kind and learned back and forth. Please check my response to Mike I just did and respectfully accept it as my response to you too. God bless you and all!

Bruce Snowden | 5/19/2014 - 7:06am

Hi Michael, Yes, mystery is not something that rattles only the spiritual brain, but the material brain as well. It doesn’t surprise me, rather it provides impetus to start “digging” or as Jesus might say, “Come and see!” At the risk of being sophomore-like , using an example (all example tend to limp!) that you must have heard many times, let me repeat that just as an artist leaves a bit of self in all of his works, so too, God who is incalculably mysterious, imparted mystery to everything he touched, including the origin of humanity and everything else. Our job is to try to identify the fingerprints on all levels of reality, are in fact the fingerprints of God! Science does so at the material level, often not realizing it and theologians do so at the spiritual level. These two disciplines need to work more closely together to find truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth!

As far as I can understand, to call something “human” automatically presumes an immortal soul, destined to somehow “partake of the Divine Nature” at least by desire as God wills all humanity to be saved. Rejected, that leads to “eternal death” an hyperbolic definition of Hell given by Jesus. What does that mean? I think it means that those who reject God remain dead, with no resurrection unto life, an act of mercy on the part of God, for to live in everlasting rebellion against God would be a most miserable hell for the reprobate. Such would be contrary to the nature of God W hose “mercy is above all his works.” At least so it seems to me
In a nutshell, if Jesus Christ is God in the flesh, Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, co-equal to the Father and the Holy Spirit, then his teachings while of necessity not containing all truth, do contain all truth necessary for salvation. Because God is a “sharing God” he shares truth indiscriminately and so followers of Jesus enrich themselves not only by listening to scientific intuitions, but also what other religions have to say that lead to sound spirituality. Remember God is not Catholic, so says Pope Francis. Neither is God religious. God is a wholly Holy Spirit, spiritual in toto and to the spirituality of God all humanity is called.

This I propose has been the case since humanity became a spiritual being through the implantation of an immortal soul, wherever, whenever, however, it happened. From that point on humanity began DESIRING God, a desire made tangible in the call of Adam and Eve I suggest from the existing human gene pool, starting what has become known as the Fatherhood of God under the sisterhood/brotherhood of Man, the Family of God, the perfection of which is fulfilled in the Church whom we are.

Michael I think I am repeating myself, redundancy a sure sign that I should have nothing else to say. Mystery remains as it always must, a grace really, since “everything is grace” according to Augustine and that’s good enough for me as I try to daily perfect natural and supernatural grace in my life. Let’s keep seeking.

Michael Barberi | 5/17/2014 - 5:59pm


I don't lose sleep over these mysteries. See my response to Tim below (the one he addressed to you and me).

I did find the statement "God is not Catholic, so says the Pope" both funny and true.

Bruce Snowden | 5/16/2014 - 1:55pm

Hi Tim - I’m scrolling through the multiple, interesting Alison posts, still looking for that “Aha!” moment of which I spoke earlier. As I read, I feel like an 82 year old student (almost 83) listening in an auditorium filled with professors explaining Mimenic theory and brief dim flashes of understanding happen leaving me dizzy in a “now I get it, now I don't” adventure. I’ve singled you out asking two questions because earlier we had some conversation, so this is a kind of addendum. I hope you wont mind.

#1, Please tell me if Alison’s theoretical theology challenges Augustine’s, “Everything is Grace.” If not, does Alison at least imply that his teachings are part of Augustine’s Grace teaching? #2, Does Alison accept the traditional teaching on Original Sin, the Adam and Eve, Garden of Eden story, or does he propose another?

This is of particular interest to me, as I’ve been proposing (without credential) here and there, that our First Parents were taken by God from the existing gene pool, not specially created, and gifted with a profound degree of Sanctifying Grace, their specially gifted souls, being in fact the “Garden of Eden” in which they lived, forming the newly constituted First Family of God, and from them through Revelation evolving into the various Families of God and ultimately as intended by God into the Church, the perfection of the Family of God, Grace in effect building on nature through our First Parents of the human Family of God, Adam and Eve. Just wondering if I’m talking Alison’s language without knowing it, or that that what I’m proposing is utterly farsical.
If you get the opportunity please clue me in. Thanks!

Michael Barberi | 5/16/2014 - 4:46pm


I found your theory that our First Parents, taken by God from the existing gene pool, interesting.

I have been studying human genetics and modern man's journey out-of-Africa. According to geneticist Stephen Oppernheimer (and most other experts), all modern out-of-African humans (Homo sapiens) came from one Mitochrondrial Eve that lived in Africa between 150,000 to 200,000 years ago. In other words, of the fifteen surviving African maternal lines older than 80,000 years, only one African line accounts for all non-Africans. Similarly, if we look at the Y chromosome, we find that all non-Africans belong to only one African male line, designated as haplogroup M168. In fact, using markers passed down through both parents, several studies have shown evidence for only one modern human expansion out-of-Africa that eventually populated the world. These modern humans began to migrate out-of-Africa sometime around 85,000 years ago (estimates range between 60,000 and 125,000 years ago).

Contrast this with the Biblical account where the so-called Adam and Eve lived somewhere in the Fertile Crescent around 4,500-5,000 years ago. Even if time and generational history per the Bible is not accurate, there is much to be explained. For example, we know that modern humans (homo sapiens) do not come from earlier primitive forms of humanoids, like the Neanderthal and Homo erectus that lived millions of years ago. However, by genetic analysis we can and have traced the root of modern humans to Africa about 200,000 years ago, and all out-of-Africa modern humans to about 85,000 years ago (when they left Africa to populate the world). Given this, the question is: at what point did God give these modern humans a soul and proclaim them as his children? Was it in Africa about 200,000 years ago, or sometime after they left Africa about 85,000 years ago?

If only "one" out-of--Africa modern human haplogroup (descendant branch) was given a soul, does this mean that the other modern humans (for example, those who later populated Australia thousands of years later) did not have a soul, or if they did have a soul, were they also children of God? If yes, then can we say that all Buddhists, etc, are children of God? If yes, is salvation given to them? If so, how?

I realize that this is a mystery, but it does raise questions about Genesis.

Tim Huegerich | 5/17/2014 - 10:29am

Michael and Bruce,
The science does not appear to be consistent with monogenism. (I am not sure you are saying otherwise, but just for clarity's sake.) It may be time to begin mourning it, to let it go. It is not needed for our theology: (Here are some helpful explanations of common misconception about Mitochondrial Eve: )
Thirdly, here are two takes on how the thought of Rene Girard helps us understand human origins in a way that is seamlessly connected with both science and theology: in videos, and in dense prose,

Michael Barberi | 5/17/2014 - 5:52pm


Thanks for the links.

The first link about a proposed theory discussing evolutionary science and our theology was interesting. It raises quite a few serious questions about the difference between our biological human origins and our so-called theological/philosophical human origins. I did read this document but did not study it. However, it appears to be a construction whereby God chose a man and woman (like God chose a Jewish people) and imparted to them a soul and some kind of gene that henceforth separated those humans from the pre-humans that existed with them in very ancient times. Then, it is proposed that since this gene was dominate and these newly-modern-God-created humans interbreed with the other humans or humanoids, their descendants all became the same…so to speak (all became God-created modern humans). Hence, this explanation is proposed to unravel the contradiction about earlier humanoids and modern humans. I might have gotten my reading wrong, but this is what it appears to have said to me.

Of course, this does not answer the question/issue: Some modern humans have never heard the word of God, the Judeo-Christian faith (e.g., Buddhists). Was this purposeful and part of God's plan? I assume this is another mystery.

Like I said, I don't lose any sleep over these questions or these mysteries. However, I have not read anything convincing that the RCC is the one true church that possess the fullness of truth, and all other religions only possess a partial truth. I am a Catholic by birth and upbringing. I love Jesus, believe in the Gospels and I am a faithful weekly-attending-Mass Catholic. However, I do disagree with certain teachings of the magisterium and do not believe that salvation for modern humans solely exist in the RCC. I like the direction that Pope Francis is taking us and pray for a more merciful, unified, open and loving Church.

Lastly, the last link, and some of the links that it also referenced about Alison's theology, was not helpful. Far too verbose and abstract for me. Nevertheless, I was interested in the fact that Alison said Girard helped him with the issue of Gays, but he did not discuss it in any detail. If you have something he wrote about the issue of same-sex oriented people (e.g., Gays or homosexuals) that challenges the magisterium's current teaching, I would like to read it. I do believe the Church/magisterium should re-think this teaching.

Tim Huegerich | 5/17/2014 - 8:59pm

I wasn't recommending that first link for it's own proposal (which I personally find ridiculous, honestly, considering the way he speaks of the first potential rejection to it - and it is telling that he doesn't even mention Alison's work). I was only citing it for it's exposition of the relevant science near the beginning.

I felt like you about the sort-of equivalence of different religions until recently when I began reading Girardian stuff, actually. Stuff like this: (The caveat that it is possible to be Christian without having heard of Christ is an important one, of course.)

The essay in which Alison most systematically lays out his position on matters gay is here:

Michael Barberi | 5/18/2014 - 5:32pm


Thanks for these links. I found Alison's essay on matters gay most helpful. It complements and supplements the works of Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler (if you are familiar with the work of these contemporary theologians). I totally agree with Alison that the Church/magisterium needs to reform and rethink the teaching about the homosexual inclination and sexual acts of same-sex couples within a committed, faithful, loving and lifeline relationship. I also think that Alison's essay on matters gay was most practical but also wisely theological.

Tim Huegerich | 5/16/2014 - 2:03pm

Bruce, it does feel like an adventure, right? I'm afraid I can't be of much help on your first question because I don't know my Augustine. I've been told that Girard and Alison are close to Augustine, but I can't really explain how, myself. Here's one excerpt of Alison on grace, from his first book:

As for #2, you will find an exhaustive reconciling of Alison's account of original sin with Scripture and the authoritative teaching of the Church in The Joy of Being Wrong. You'll find his specific proposal for a sort of historical reconstruction in Ch. 9 titled, "Reimagining the Symbol of Original Sin." Although it feels a bit like revealing spoilers, I'll tell you that to some extent he gives priority to Genesis 4, the story of Cain and Abel, over Genesis 3, the story of Adam and Eve, as an image of original sin. He sort of reads The Fall through the lens of Abel, in an analogous way to how we read all of Scripture through the crucified and risen victim (in the spirit of Jesus on the road to Emmaus) even though the Resurrection comes near the end of the Scriptures chronologically.

Long story short, I'm not sure he takes a position on the question of when or how the special creation of the human soul took place. My sense is that this question does not occupy a particularly important role in his account. I personally find your proposal (of the two chosen out of the existing gene pool) a creative construction, though perhaps a bit awkward.

Bruce Snowden | 5/17/2014 - 4:50pm

Hi Tim, Just letting you know I checked out the site on Grace explained by Alison and found myself overwhelmed not only by its content but also by its length. Can't anyone speak in simple sentences helping the less erudite like me to understand? I should talk, considering that my wife calls me a "windbag" and she's quite right. It's said if you want to know what your sins are, ask your wife! Honestly, I simply didn't understand what Alison was saying, not his, but my fault I guess. Augustine synthesized his profundity on Grace in one sentence, "Everything is Grace." Thanks for helping. I do appreciate it

Bruce Snowden | 5/16/2014 - 5:09pm

Tim, Regarding #1 question, thanks for the info source on Augustine which I will look into. I do like Augustine, who of course was not always right. Like me!!! Regarding #2 question, I'm a "What-if?" person and the "existing gene pool" idea reflects that mindset, which as you rightly pointed out although a creative construct, is "a bit awkward," and does need refinement. If I live long enough maybe I'll able to work it out! In synthesis to this adventure and it is an adventure over rocky terrain, as Chesterton said, "The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of men." kind of meaning that hopefully Alison creates a sister version of "The Joy ..." called "The Joy Of Being Wrong For Dummies" so I'll be able to "get it." In the meantime I will trudge through Ch. 9, hoping to understand a little better Alison's take on Original Sin, which according to Augustine is as it is, not in need of the "existing gene pool." Again thanks for taking time to respond.

Michael Barberi | 5/14/2014 - 8:42pm

I must admit of not reading the works of James Alison. However, from my limited grasping of the good comments of all on this blog and from the article, it seems that Alison is arguing against a rigid application of theology where those who might disagree with certain teachings of the Church/magisterium should not be demonized or segregated or classified as misguided about their theological perspectives, and closed off from the Church. The Church must be open to all that seek the truth and the love of God and neighbor.

I do agree that knowledge and culture play a role in anyone's thinking and beliefs. This was true during the time of Christ as has been throughout the centuries and today. I will admit that my focus has always been on moral theology, but moral theology is not, or cannot be, independent from a knowledge of Scripture and the works of Augustine, Aquinas and others. This includes new scholarship and insight from many gifted theologians.

Nevertheless, there seems to be something missing in this article, and I must admit I did not fully grasps its essence. For example, if one is to change their attitude and motivation, et al, nothing was mentioned about infused and acquired virtue that seem to me to be part of the action of grace and reason, prayer and sacrament, for those who seek the truth and strive to live a life pleasing to God.

What was apparent to me is that the Church/magisterium must be more open to the voices of the People of God, inclusive of theologians, clergy, in particular bishops, and the non-theololgian laity.

Sin is part of this world and may well have been completely related to original sin. However, I was confused when the Theology of the Body (TOB) was mentioned, as though this was something as great as anything Augustine wrote about. I might be mistaken in misunderstanding the reference to it, but the TOB was based on JP II's philosophical anthropology, personalism and symbolic speculation. Anyone who disagreed with Karol Wojtyla/Saint JP II philosophy and teachings were not tolerated and often classified and dissenters, misguided or invincibly ignorant. There is much about the TOB, as an absolute moral teaching, that is legitimately disputed.

I am mostly a practical man but not one who is ignorant of theology, in particular moral theology. In other words, I am open to any good work that can help me become the man God wishes me to become. I admit that the article was difficult for me to understand perhaps because it lacked some practical applications to the many issues plaguing the Church today.

I do believe we learn and become more perfected and enlightened in community, with a focus on the poor, all brought about through the mercy and grace of God. Having said that, I was not moved by this article or the comments to read the works of James Alison. This is not indicative that his work is not contributory or that anyone would not benefit from a study of his work.

Tim Huegerich | 5/14/2014 - 9:51pm

Good news - you have not received an accurate picture of Alison's work from your reading of the article and comments. Are virtue and moral action more to do with "thinking and beliefs" or with grace and the ability to actually do the good? The latter, of course, and likewise with Girard's mimetic insight as applied by Alison. In his own words, "In the world of my formation [as a British evangelical], being good was obligatory and boring. And sinning, being bad, was a terrible letting down of the side... As a Catholic I had to learn that sin is boringly normal, and that what is exciting is being pulled into learning new things, called virtues, which are ways in which a goodness which is not ours becomes connatural with us, and that this is something of an adventure."

You are thus right to perceive that Alison would question the negative aspects of how TOB has been experienced. But you are mistaken to the extent that you believe Alison's work is nothing to do with "infused and acquired virtue...the action of grace and reason, prayer and sacrament, for those who seek the truth and strive to live a life pleasing to God."

I would recommend checking out Alison's essay on prayer, which gives a basic introduction to his theological anthropology and comes the closest to anything "practical" that I can think of (as I believe it has greatly enriched my prayer life): Or if you are interested in his approach to the sacraments, you might be intrigued by his image of the mass as the un-Nuremberg-rally: Or for his approach to ethics and the poor, you might enjoy his reading of the parable of the Good Samaritan:

If you do read anything of James Alison's, you will find a persistent focus on presenting the kerygma. In the words of Pope Francis, "On the lips of the catechist the first proclamation must ring out over and over: “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.” This first proclamation is called “first” not because it exists at the beginning and can then be forgotten or replaced by other more important things. It is first in a qualitative sense because it is the principal proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another throughout the process of catechesis, at every level and moment."

Michael Barberi | 5/15/2014 - 5:13pm


Thank you for your comments. As I mentioned, I have not read Alison or Girard and may have not received an accurate picture of Alison's work from my reading of this article and the various blog comments.

I did read Alison's essay on prayer accessed from the internet address that you kindly provided. Honestly, it did not tell me anything about what I already knew about prayer but it did articulate it in a different way. It was a good reminder of how our social-selves are molded by culture and have desires that may not be what God wants, which is Him. It is all about placing God in the center of ourselves and praying to Him not only for the right desire but to do what is good and do it well.

I get it that God knows what we need before we ask. I get it that we need to let go of our social-material-selves and allow God (the Other other) transform us into the men and women He wants us to be. Alison's essay on prayer reminded me of silent prayer, the prayer from the heart and mysticism, the cloud of the unknowing and St. John of the Cross, et al. However, the purpose of prayer is to build a relationship with God and wanting what He wants and hating what He hates.

There is no one method of prayer superior to another because God loves all types of prayer. There is silent prayer, the prayer of gratitude, adoration, praise, thanksgiving, petitionary prayer, etc. I mix up my prayers. Sometimes I argue with God, sometimes I ask Him for wisdom to understand what is right and wrong and what He wants of me. I trust in God and I am not frustrated because I don't know what He really wants me to do. Nevertheless, I am hopeful and confident that God will direct my life and help me to become more like Him, even though I will never be perfect or truly like Him.

I can be confident about my salvation without being arrogant and selfish.However, I also understand that God's grace has its own time and place and actualization schedule. Grace does change our motivations, desires and actions over time, beyond ourselves to others who are in need. It is a lifelong process.

Nevertheless, I found Alison's essay on prayer too verbose and philosophically abstract for me. I like cutting to the heart of the matter more quickly. It was a struggle to read his essay on prayer because I wanted him to get to the point even though I understood what he was saying. I did not find him as practical as you say.

Perhaps I was not clear about what I meant by practical. My reference to practicality was grounded in the existential application of what is being proposed such as the morality of voluntary human actiion, good and evil ends and intentions, the morality of voluntary human action (e.g., Aquinas and ethical method), how to deal with moral dilemma, living a virtuous life pleasing to God, etc. I realize that prayer, sacrament and God's grace are necessary. I get it that learning good things called virtues are ways in which goodness which is not ours become connatural with us…and this is an lifelong adventure and a journey with God. However, virtue theory today is far to abstract in dealing with reality. This does not mean they are unimportant or unnecessary or valueless. However, what we need today is a better understanding of virtue ethics that help us make morally right decisions.

An example of abstraction is: to be just, one must do just things (over and over again). This raises many questions: What sort of things are just? Does justice vary from culture to culture? How does one specifically determine what is just when in moral dilemma, when there seems to be a clash of virtues? Is it not true that one cannot rely solely on one virtue in most circumstances, but all of them or several of them? For example, some people say that marital sexuality is the virtue of charity-temperence. However, is not prudence the measurement of temperance? I will stop here because I am likely moving into another issue. Nevertheless, I hope you get my point.

If Alison's work is like his essay on prayer, I am afraid I would rather read the works of others, such as Aquinas, Charles Curran, Todd Salzman and Joseph Selling.

Tim Huegerich | 5/16/2014 - 12:15pm

Alison is not an ethicist. Nor does he write practical guides for discernment. Systematic theology is not for everyone, and it sounds as if it not something you need. Alison puts it this way: "Theology is perhaps for those of us who can't find an obvious sense in what may be very simple perceptions, ones which are understood intuitively by better Christians than ourselves; theology would be for those of us who are obliged to the hard labor of dragging our obstinate intellects through the spines and thistles of our own self-deceit so as to bring each thought, each remnant of intellectual pride, captive before Christ (2 Cor. 10:5), ploughing out meaning from arid and sterile soil."

I'll give you some examples of the kind of situations for which reading Alison has been helpful for me. I became convinced that my moral duty was to limit my expenses to around $10,000 per year (per person) and give most of the rest of my income more or less directly to those in extreme poverty (see, but I was not able to do it. I wasted time and, unable to get my act together to make lunches for myself, wasted money on eating out constantly. And I was miserable. Well, that essay on the Good Samaritan entitled "Like being dragged through a bush backwards" has been a huge part of my healing, empowering me to live more freely.

Most of the Gospel of John seemed like rambling nonsense to me, until reading The Joy of Being Wrong tied it all together and made it come alive. Another hidden gem in that book was an understanding of the sense of infant baptism (that doesn't involve infant mortality and hell).

The notion that Jesus himself wrongly expected a "Left Behind" style apocalypse to occur in the near future, an idea due to the brilliant exegesis of Albert Schweitzer, was troubling to me and affected my trust in God. Alison's more convincing interpretation in Raising Abel was thus hugely helpful for my faith.

Michael Barberi | 5/16/2014 - 4:12pm


I think you are correct. Reading Alison will not benefit me in my stage of journey. This does not mean that there may be some things of Alison's work that would be enlightening to me. However, I don't have to be convinced about the importance of putting God in the center of my life, etc.

Our social selves, influenced by original sin, culture, ignorance and self-deception, often can become confused leading to bad motivations, ends and intentions and wrong moral actions. This is where studying moral theology and ethical method inclusive of virtue ethics can help. Nevertheless, we all do not see the complete truth and we must always be humble even when we disagree with certain moral teachings of the RCC. We must always be open to further education, frequent pray and sacrament.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Tim Huegerich | 5/14/2014 - 5:46pm

While it's understandable given the space constraints, I feel the article misses the significance of Alison's theology of original sin and salvation, particularly for non-theologian scholars and scientists. For anyone whose understanding of human nature has been shaped by modern philosophy, psychology, and/or economics classes, as mine had, Alison's (and Girard's) work is a startling revelation. If your working model of how humans behave is that we have a set of tastes or interests that are basically fully formed by age 5 at the latest, after which we simply gather information and do things to try to achieve those pre-determined goals, then there really isn't much of a role for Christianity other than to set up rules restricting people and directing them towards socially beneficial ends.

But that views misses everything that's interesting and fun about Christianity and being human - the constant swirling of our desires day after day, year after year, formed in relationship with others. "...each of us learns to desire *according* to the desire of an individual or social other, and thus that desire is prior to, and what makes possible, the coming into being of the ‘self’ of any one of us. So desire is not linear and object-directed in itself (as in much individual psychology, which depends on there being a desiring ‘self’ with its own desires), but is called into being by other people’s desires: if an advertiser wants to sell me a pair of jeans he shows me someone else enjoying them. Nor is it essentially reactive (meaning that the ‘self’ is essentially formed in reaction to, or over against, the desires of others), following Hegel’s thesis, antithesis model of development.

"It sounds too grandiose to say so, but with the one stroke contained in the word *according* (desire *according* to the desire of the other), Girard has set us free from both Freud and Hegel, and given us access to an anthropology that is simultaneously pre-modern, and quite outside postmodern nihilism. For desire to be according to the desire of the other means that, in principle, human desire can be, and often is, a pacific and non-rivalistic desire. That is to say that human desire is in principle, and essentially, a good thing. Readers with theological antennae will quickly grasp the significance of this: the possibility of an anthropology which is, at last, compatible with the Catholic faith..."

It is helpful to contrast Alison's account of original sin and evil with the armchair theology we generally inhabit under the influence of Spencer and Freud. Consider the account of anatomy professor Daryl P. Domning (in his 2001 America article, "Evolution, Evil and Original Sin"): "We all sin because we have all inherited—from the very first living things on earth—a powerful tendency to act selfishly, no matter the cost to others. Free will enables us to override this tendency, but only sporadically and with great effort; we more readily opt for self... It is not the result of a “Fall” in our prehistory... We incur guilt only when we freely choose to act on this tendency to the detriment of others...

"...Indeed we do learn to sin from the sinful society into which we are born; and even the very first humans learned to sin from the selfish though sinless pre-human society into which they were born. But even without that legacy of learned behavior, we would still be urged to sin by the genetically programmed selfishness, dating from the dawn of life, that underlies it and gave rise to it."

Here, sin is identified with the biological instincts to survive and reproduce. Original sin, in this view, is natural and simply part of God's creation. Jesus can inspire some of us to transcend this through moral heroism, but beneath it all, in our deepest cores we all just want to do it like they do on the Discovery Channel. Free will has the feel of a trap in which we animals may finally be considered guilty and held accountable for our innate selfishness. This deficient understanding of original sin as selfish genes does not mesh with Catholic teaching and is simply inaccurate in the case of humans, though it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Now contrast that with Alison's account, which he has summarized as " the light of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, it became possible to look back and see that all humans, ever since there has been a humanity (and the codeword for this was “since Adam”) have been involved, by the mere fact of being born and socialized into human culture, in a culture run by death, vengefulness and its scapegoating and sacrificial outcomes. We are thus all born into a culture in which desire is distorted against itself and frustrated. This culture seemed to all of us simply to be what is normal. But in fact it is not..." ( )

In this account, our natural desires for food and sex are fundamentally good. They only enter the realm of sin to the extent that our desire gets snarled into rivalry - in the kind of shaming, sadism, addiction, and resentment which is remarkably rare among non-human animals on the Discovery Channel. The condition of sin began not with the first living creatures but precisely in the origin of human culture, which happened to have been a lynch death a la Cain. But the deep down reality is the gratuitousness and abundance of creation, which we only fail to delight in when we get tied up in knots. Jesus undoes the knots and we relax into his peace, and rejoice.

Luis Gutierrez | 5/10/2014 - 2:48pm

Alison's application of mimetic theory to issues of human sexuality is very appealing. I wonder if his theological project might include the ordination of women to the priesthood.

Tim Huegerich | 5/10/2014 - 10:25pm

I suspect he might say something along the lines of, "I think you are mistaking me for a moral theologian, or someone who is professionally interested in sexual ethics," as he did for a recent interview with Commonweal. From what I understand, his theological project has been more about articulating what it means to be saved by Jesus, rehabilitating the central place of the Ascension in the Good News, and deepening our traditional understanding of original sin (even in a way that is seamless with a modern understanding of human origins - amazingly, to me). That said, when pressed (in a recent, rather farcical debate) for practical steps the Church should take, he said, "The most practical thing I would like to see is an institutional form of women being able to speak much more and much more often and with much more measurable effect in the life the church...[perhaps] women priests, but at the very least, women in charge of Roman dicasteries."

Luis Gutierrez | 5/11/2014 - 1:34am

It is hard to separate practical issues from moral and other theological issues. The beauty of Girard's mimetic theory on religious violence, and Alison's work, and also John Paul II's Theology of the Body, is that they point toward a new synthesis which is at the same time consistent with modern science, including evolutionary biology. The ordination of women is both a practical issue and a moral issue, just as the controversy resolved in Acts 15 (which, by the way, was not unrelated to human sexuality) was a practical moral issue. In light of the ascension of Jesus, and the assumption of Mary, it is immoral (in my opinion) to deprive the people of God of priestly services by ordained women. Furthermore, the ordination of women to the priesthood would be like a new "assumption" in the life of the church. As they say, "to err is human, to forgive is divine." Let us pray for religious nonviolence, and a new "pentecost," and the ordination of celibate women, sooner rather than later.

Tim Huegerich | 5/11/2014 - 8:32pm

Luis, I personally share all of your prayers. But I think it's worth considering what Alison said immediately prior to the quote I shared above, "I'm no great advocate of practical steps, honestly, because I think that it's lots of small steps.. It's when we start becoming more truthful and honest and less frightened is the key thing." Let's take Acts 15 as an example. (You can see Alison's take on a precursor to that story here: ) In brief, that huge controversy was resolved only after a lengthy process, and the amazing thing about it is that it was done without causing a schism (to my knowledge). In addition, notice that in Acts 16:3, Paul still has Timothy circumcised out of consideration for the Jews he would be ministering to.

What does all this mean for us now? There is not only a morality of the end result but also a morality or prudence about the process. While praying for others to change is a worthy effort, there is more we can do. Indeed, "we will be judged not by how excellent we were at putting forward our own rightness and the wrongness of others, but by how excellent we were at creating space for those we consider to be wrong. By how easy, in fact, we made it for them to repent... What we can do is help to create ways out of their current situation such that they may be less afraid to go down that route when they finally lose confidence in their current rhetoric and way of doing things. ...what forms of discourse can we engage in which will make it less difficult for others to lose face, bearing in mind that if we are wrong, what we most hope for is that someone will make it easy for us to lose face, give us a soft landing?"

I feel it is likely that I am telling you something you already know, so please forgive my preaching. I know that in my own case, I need to hear this sort of reminder again and again, but I hope it is not annoying for you.

Luis Gutierrez | 5/12/2014 - 5:38pm

It is not annoying, I also need to be reminded that we must seek the truth in charity, and I agree with the need to consider the morality of the process. My conjecture is that this is precisely what John Paul II had in mind when he published Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. I also agree that the process will probably require a long succession of small steps. But it is hard to imagine that suppressing discussion of the issue is conducive to discernment of what the Spirit is saying to the church here and now, and at the moment I cannot recall this kind of "prudence" being mentioned in the New Testament.

Some are saying that getting women ordained to the priesthood may require the creation of a separate rite, so that those who don't want to be under the pastoral care of women priests/bishops can opt to stay in the current Latin rite. Would this be a "soft landing"? Similar measures in the Anglican communion have not mitigated the pain much. It is impossible to please everyone, and attempts to do so may simply prolong the agony and compromise the mission of evangelization in the globalized world of the 21st century. In any case, may God give us all the grace to be "forgiving victims."

Anne Chapman | 5/14/2014 - 9:07am

women being able to speak much more and much more often

How many men, even someone who can make this statement, really sees what it says about the Roman Catholic church? How many of you "get" how condescending and insulting the church is towards women? This phrase says it all. John Paul II was so incensed at the very notion that women should, like men, be eligible for all seven sacraments, that he wrote multiple documents that at their core (underneath the flowery Vaticanese) treat women as second-class human beings who must always be subservient to men - in the church and in the home. Francis' use of the term "feminine genius" is in the same vein. Separate but equal - it was once applied to race in the US and everyone knew it was a lie. It's exactly the same situation in the Roman Catholic church and it is a sin that needs repentance sooner rather than later.

As far as the Anglicans go, the churches in the Anglican communion are not monolithic in practice. In the African churches ordination of women is shunned and some of the bishops (and some Roman Catholic bishops) are also supporting vicious legislation directed at homosexuals. So far Rome has remained silent on the cooperation with evil some of its African bishops seem to be involved with. The African Anglicans have come close to schism over the issue of homosexuality. Let them go their own way if they must. Their complicity with secular governments that have criminalized homosexuality is not "christian" as in Christ-like. And some of the RC bishops are also going along. Where is Francis' voice on this?

The US church of the Anglican Communion (The Episcopal Church) has long accepted women priests with barely a ripple. There is no "pain" in the US over this at all. Women priests are welcomed and they do indeed have gifts the men do not. Together with male priests they represent the fullness of God, who "made them male and female in God's image"). The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal church in the US is a woman, as are many other Episcopal bishops in the US. There is no shortage of priests in the Episcopal church because married men and women are accepted if qualified, they are not shunned because of marital status or gender. Homosexual priests are also welcomed, but this is still a "touchy" issue in the Episcopal church. Most of those who were unhappy have long fled and joined African dioceses or gone on their own. They are a relative few in the Episcopal church and the controversy has pretty much settled down now. Those who don't accept gay priests are gone.

In England, a very small group of high church Anglicans (sometimes called Anglo-Catholics) protested women priests (and now homosexual priests also of course). They do not have a separate rite - they use the Book of Common Prayer in use throughout the Anglican Communion. The BCP has two standard rites, with one using more traditional language than the other. I have no idea why the RCC hasn't adopted this common sense approach to the liturgy wars, but.....whoever said Rome has common sense?.

However, the Archbishop of Canterbury did respect their strong feelings by creating two "flying" bishops who supervise the churches who refuse to accept women priests. These parishes are few and far between (about 350 parishes out of 13,000 parishes), not necessarily located in close geographic proximity (hence the "flying" to get around the "diocese". It seems some in Rome thought they could exploit this situation by creating the "Ordinariate" which would permit Anglicans to keep the BCP and their own liturgical rites, but come under Rome. There was, as most recall, a great deal of fanfare about this, and Benedict clearly thought that thousands and thousands of Anglicans would swim the Tiber. It hasn't happened that way. In fact, fewer than 1500 have become Catholic through the Ordinariate, most of those in the first year. The most unhappy people joined Rome then, but some obviously had second thoughts. Another group of unhappy Anglicans may join if, as is expected, the Church of England begins ordaining women bishops. But frankly, the rest of the church will be happy to wave good-bye to them as they exert a negative influence on the church. Some in the Church of England are not happy about the flying bishops and Canterbury's willingness to tolerate parishes that won't accept women priests. The mainstream of Anglicans in England would just as soon those people go to Rome.

It is time for all to stop trying to justify the church's teachings that treat women as second-class.

Tim Huegerich | 5/13/2014 - 2:07pm

Anne, thank you. I am very glad to learn more about this. But to briefly try to play the role of defense attorney, or paraclete, I want to question the idea that the Church would be better without the "unhappy" group you describe. Here's Alison: "I want to say, as a Catholic: never, ever let go of your fundamentalists... It is of course terribly dangerous for them to be left to a world of their own creating. But it is no less dangerous for those who do not share their expressed opinions to leave them. Because we are almost invariably run by the same patterns of desire and so forth, but displaced onto something else. If you want an example, then think of this, told me by an Episcopalian in the US the week after the consecration of Gene Robinson. He said “Well, it’s simple. They’re wrong, and we’ve got the money”. In fact, this was told to me by someone who was in favour of Bishop Robinson’s consecration. But you can easily see that exactly the same sentiment could have been uttered by someone opposed to the same consecration. Down this route lies the mutually incorrigible umbrage of mirror-image sects. But we’ll never work through our own fundamentalisms and our own anger and small-mindedness, our own longing to be safe in a group of people like us, and so come to all truth, unless we find ways of hanging in with those who we think of as unlike us. Especially since their “unlikeness” is usually a projection of the bits of ourselves we don’t like onto someone we feel safer about fearing than ourselves. It’s only when we can relax about God wanting them at the party that we really will be able to get over our hidden fear that he can’t really want us."

Anne Chapman | 5/14/2014 - 12:00pm

Tim, I am not quite sure of what you are saying about not "letting go of your [Catholic] fundamentalists". In the ECUSA, it was a choice made by the fundamentalists not by the national church - some individual parishes chose to leave the Episcopal Church because it refused to bend to the will of the small minority who are fundamentalists. They would have been welcome to stay, but they would not be allowed to impose their fundamentalist views on the entire church. Similarly, the African [Anglican] bishops have threatened schism if Canterbury doesn't accommodate them. They wanted Canterbury to disavow the ECUSA after the election of Bishop Robinson was approved by the General Convention. Canterbury did not disavow the ECUSA and the African churches are still part of the world Anglican Communion, but it's hard to predict what will happen in the future. The Anglican communion did not leave the fundamentalists in the US and elsewhere, they left the Anglican communion. It would welcome them back, but will still not impose their fundamentalist understandings on all.

But your quote referred to "Catholic fundamentalists". In the Roman Catholic church, the "fundamentalists" are the group with the power. It was almost embarrassing to watch Rome as it almost desperately courted the Society for Pius X, who continually thumbed their collective noses at Rome. At least Rome refused to cave on the issue of Vatican II. Yet, while treating fundamentalists, including the extremes in schism, with kid gloves, Rome treats women and those men who advocate women's ordination with great harshness - the investigation of the sisters is a scandal, and Francis is permitting it to continue under Mueller. If the patriarchal fundamentalists were a minority in the church, as they are in Anglicanism, the issue of "leaving" them or them "leaving" the RCC would not be that significant. However, they are in power, even though global surveys of Catholics show a majority of THE church in all but a couple of African countries favors women's ordination. Patriarchy is still one of the most profound institutional sins plaguing the Catholic church, and this sin has done great harm to THE church, both directly and indirectly .

We [the people who are THE church] cannot change this because all who aren't in the hierarchy have no voice in this church. It's fine to engage in intellectual and theological head-games, great fun for those involved, but it does not help those who are harmed by patriarchy in the church and in the world. For most of my life I accepted "with docility" the church's treatment of women. I had no interest in being a priest, and followed a typical life - marriage, children and career and so paid little attention. But I have come to see how damaging it is to the church and to the world to continue to deny the feminine side of God in church governance and the definition of doctrine - especially to deny the "feminine genius" of married women and mothers. Women of my generation passively accepted our second-class status because we were not born into a society that accepted women as equal - women were denied many rights and we dumbly did not question it for a very long time - but the women of my generation started speaking out for our rights - our daughters were not born into the world we were born into, and they do not accept being second-class citizens of the church when they are treated as equals in most other areas of their lives. They are leaving the church in record numbers in the US and the west in general, and of course, that means their children are not being baptized in the Roman Catholic church. (CARA data documents both the decline in marriages in the church and the decline in infant baptisms). There is a small but very vocal group of young "orthodox" women who pride themselves on being "traditional" women who accept their subservient role with docile obedience - calling it "authentic feminism" (whoever came up with that one was a genius at spin). But they are a small group.

National cultures are on different timetables of development. Those whose economies are still less-developed usually have fewer educational opportunities available to the whole population, and especially to women. These cultures are not [yet] scandalized by the RCC's treatment of women because they are cultures where patriarchy is still widespread and not yet questioned. This will change as their economies continue to strengthen and as women are able to access education and decent jobs. Some of the international aid institutions now target girls for education and women for micro-loans, because they have found that the multiplier effect for economic development is greater when girls and women are the recipients of certain types of assistance than when men are. Once women have greater access to decent education and jobs in these countries, there will be no stopping them.

The western Catholic church in Europe is almost dead, except for the fundamentalists. This pattern appears to be happening in the US as well. The trend may accelerate as recent studies by Pew show that Hispanic American Catholics are leaving the church in greater numbers than expected. They have filled the pews in recent decades, but are now also choosing to leave the Catholic church in ever-growing numbers.

The RCC represents half of the world's christians. It alone of all religious groups in the world has the critical mass and visibility to be able to influence the culture - to at least be heard. It sometimes uses its unique position for the good but it also sometimes uses it to perpetuate institutional sins that directly or indirectly harm people in evil ways. Patriarchy is widely prevalent in parts of Islam - a small, but powerful group within one of the great Abrahamic religions.. In these extreme versions of Islam, women are denied all civil and human rights, even to education. Islam is growing fast and will soon challenge the Roman Catholic church in sheer numbers of members. The extreme Islamists impose their will through terror (such as is happening right now in Nigeria). The Catholic church does not treat women the same way that extremists within Islam do - the dying gasps of extreme, traditional patriarchy. Most of Protestantism does not bar women from the ordained ministry or priesthood, but, as some in the RCC love to point out, Protestantism is broken up into many offshoots and cannot influence global culture the way the RCC can. The Pope is the most visible and recognized religious leader in the world. So while extremists within Islam are attacking all Christians in some areas of the world (partly because christianity is seen as a corrupting influence on women) it is really only the Catholic church that has enough clout to be able to effectively oppose these ideas on the world religious stage. Islam has almost one billion members, but it does not have a single, prominent voice that is covered by the world news as does Catholicism. Those in Islam who are fighting for their understanding of Islam to prevail over the fundamentalist extremists who are distorting the Koran, who are fighting for their women and girls don't have a singe spokesperson who can catch the attention that the Pope can - the Catholic church can lead the way.

The RCC has a moral obligation to become the shining light on the hill for women still caught in the excesses of patriarchy in the world. It must begin in its own house by changing its teachings that deny women equal status in the Catholic church. It must teach by example. This is not just for Catholic women, or for Catholics. The most prominent religion in the world will be sending a message that helps ALL women in all religions and cultures by clearly teaching that women are equal to men - in their religions, cultures, societies and families. Right now the Catholic church says one thing, but does another. As the saying goes, action speaks louder than words.

Luis Gutierrez | 5/15/2014 - 12:32pm

"The RCC has a moral obligation to become the shining light on the hill for women still caught in the excesses of patriarchy in the world." On this I agree with you wholeheartedly, and share most of your perception on where we are as members of the body of Christ. I also think that the exclusively male priesthood is an obstacle to further progress toward a civilization of solidarity and sustainability, and the church has the power of the keys to remove the obstacle in response to the signs of the times, which certainly include the demise of the patriarchal family. Pope Francis cannot walk on water, but I hope that, later this year, the synod of bishops on the family will come to grips with reality and recognize that the church as a family should not continue to resemble a patriarchal family.

Recent developments in ECUSA and the Anglican Communion, as well as other Protestant churches in which institutional patriarchy is already on the way out, remind me of Romans 8:28. For centuries we have lamented the separation that resulted from the Protestant reformation. Surely, the body of Christ has suffered much pain as a result, but perhaps we are about to discover that God is capable of turning everything to good. If the Anglicans, and other Protestant churches, succeed in overcoming patriarchal fundamentalism, and thereby help us Catholics to clarify the difference between patriarchal ideology and revealed truth with regard to the sacraments, then we may have to be thankful for the Protestant reformation!

Tim Huegerich | 5/14/2014 - 3:55pm

Anne, I am happy to clarify that I was responding to the portion of your previous comment in which you said, "Another group of unhappy Anglicans may join if, as is expected, the Church of England begins ordaining women bishops. But frankly, the rest of the church will be happy to wave good-bye to them as they exert a negative influence on the church." I was reacting to the general idea that the church would be better off without a certain group of people. But as I re-read your comment, I see that you may not have been espousing that view yourself but merely describing the views of others.

In any case, the Alison quote about "fundamentalists" actually comes from a talk in an ecumenical Christian setting (as far as I can tell), so it's not quite accurate to suggest he was referring to "[Catholic] fundamentalists" specifically, though I can understand how you might read it that way. This detail is of very little significance, but just for the record.

Otherwise, I don't think there's much we disagree about, but I appreciate you writing out your understanding of the situation so I can hopefully see things more clearly.

Luis Gutierrez | 5/13/2014 - 12:53pm

I share your pain, anger, and frustration. I agree that "it is time for all to stop trying to justify the church's teachings that treat women as second-class." But let us try to avoid the temptation to victimize the victimizers, for they are also victims of the patriarchal system. The victimizers need to be criticized, but not victimized.

It probably took some time for the decision of Acts 15:28 to be reached. Then it took many centuries to overcome the notion that slavery is part of the "natural law." Now we may be reaching the point of overcoming a similar notion about patriarchy. Going forward, the best option is the keep praying and working for the Christification of the church and the entire world; a process that, for each one of us, starts deep within.

Anne Chapman | 5/14/2014 - 10:18am

Luis, I don't quite understand what you are saying by "victimizing the victimizers". Is asking for equality in access to sacraments victimizing those who have the power and who use that power to deny a sacrament to women?

Praying is fine. But action moves things along a bit better. The men in Rome are apparently considering a few things that just a few years ago were not on the radar at all. The dramatic decline in vocations to the celibate priesthood seems to be pushing Rome (at least Francis) into considering a change in the "discipline" of mandatory celibacy. Similarly, the dramatic losses of practicing Catholics who have left the church because of its denial of communion to those who have divorced and remarried without having an annulment, seem to be prompting some bishops to push for a reconsideration of how the church handles divorce and remarriage in the 21st century - to find a more "pastoral" approach. It was the losses that may finally push the church into thinking in new ways about "tradition". It was the loss of the people -to the priesthood so that priests are heavily overburdened in many parts of the world and many Catholics no longer have access to a weekly eucharist, and, loss of people in the pews - and of the money those people brought to the church.

Why does the church have to wait until there are crises or near crises before it is willing to open its mind? The loss of educated young women to the church in Europe, and increasingly in the US, and increasingly also in Latin America, and eventually in Asia and Africa, will someday produce a change in the teaching. The church's survival will be at stake if the women leave. But why wait until that happens?

Many women may be work for the "Christification" of the world, but that does not mean they will work for the "Catholicization" of the world if it means supporting the sin of patriarchy.

Luis Gutierrez | 5/15/2014 - 12:02pm

As we all know, we must fight sin but love the sinner. In the present context, to refrain from "victimizing the victimizers" has a similar meaning. In other words, we must fight patriarchy, especially when it becomes abusive patriarchy, but still love the patriarchs. Easier said than done, but the fact is that we are all sinners. I agree with you that sexism is a sin, and patriarchy is like institutionalized sexism, but the patriarchs in the church (i.e., the "men in Rome" and all priests and bishops worldwide) are prisoners of the patriarchal system like everyone else. We all tend to procrastinate when it comes to personal conversion, and we all tend to avoid seeing what we don't want to see. In terms of mimetic theory, this is because we tend to desire what others desire, and this generally means money, power, and honors. I agree with you that overcoming patriarchy is the next step in further growing as body of Christ, but we should remain focused on fighting patriarchy rather than condemning the patriarchs.

Anne Chapman | 5/15/2014 - 1:06pm

Luis, how does one fight patriarchy in the church when it is the patriarchs themselves who hold all the power?

Francis has signaled change on several fronts, but he also appears to be firmly patriarchal in his views on women. His use of "feminine genius" is every bit as patriarchal as were John Paul II's writings.

Luis Gutierrez | 5/15/2014 - 4:46pm

The patriarchs are themselves prisoners of the patriarchal system. As exasperated as we might be, we must find ways to criticize patriarchy as a cultural system, and show that divine revelation should not be reduced to patriarchal ideology, but refrain from ad hominem personal attacks on the patriarchs. I know, easier said than done, but ad hominem attacks are not conducive to tradition renewal and church reform.

Of course Pope Francis is patriarchal. What else can he be after 2000 years of ecclesiastical patriarchy? Yes, he could resolve the issue by defining ex-cathedra that the exclusively male priesthood is NOT a matter of faith. But I think it would be unfair to attack him for not doing so, given that many (50% or more?) of the church still conflate patriarchy with revealed truth. We must keep pressing the point, but always in charity.

One way to press the point further is to study John Paul II's Theology of the Body. It seems to me, that if the objectification of both the male and female body is to be avoided by recognizing that both men and women are "body-subjects," then the sacramental doctrine about priests being "icons of Christ" should not be limited to "the priest must be male because Jesus Christ is male." It also seems to me, that if as humans we attain full humanity only to the extent that we become a communion of persons (communio personarum), then the church hierarchy is not fully human, and cannot possibly represent the mysteries of the incarnation and the redemption, as long as it remains exclusively male.

Now, how can we convey these concerns in a positive manner? Experience confirms that confrontation is not helpful, and in fact may reinforce resistance to change. Hard as this may be, we must keep asking honest questions, and trust that the Spirit will lead us all to the truth about this issue. With this, I already told you more than I know ... :-)

Anne Chapman | 5/15/2014 - 4:50pm

Luis, The patriarchs of the church may be the product of the patriarchal system and culture, but they are not imprisoned by it. They could easily break their "chains" just by making a decision to do so. They are not victims

Right now the church of Rome is more closely aligned on this issue with the more repressive cultures in the world as far as women's rights go, instead of with most of the rest of the Christian community and the more humane countries of the world. If other Christians have been able to take the steps to root out the sins of patriarchy, one has to wonder why the Catholic church is so seemingly unable to do - unless the continuance of patriarchy is just entirely too comfortable for those who benefit from it. Some slaveholders knew that owning human beings was sinful and evil, but it made their lives very comfortable.

Facing this reality is not the same as making ad hominem attacks. Expressing the opinion that some of the writings of John Paul II (and Benedict and many other popes and high level hierarchy) are essentially anti-woman (let's be honest about what they really are) is not an ad hominem, nor is it an ad hominem to point out that several of Francis' comments are also patriarchal and demeaning to women - even if not intentionally. He appears to be a very nice man. I did not "attack" him by drawing attention to what he has said. I have nothing against him personally, but he IS in a position to make changes and it appears that, like his predecessors, this is one subject he will not even discuss. o how do we "press the point"?

The men in charge in Rome are the only people in the church with the power to change the patriarchal system. I have no interest in attacking these men as individuals, who perhaps "know not what they do" because they are indeed products of a patriarchal culture. But given that this culture will continue to be exclusively run by male patriarchs, how does one work for reform? Those who speak out - women, theologians, priests are silenced by the very patriarchs who most need to listen to them. Those who counsel heroic "patience" offer no real solutions - this approach simply helps to perpetuate the status quo.

I know that my comments have taken this thread away from the high-level philosophical discussion sparked by Alison. But, as interesting as those type of discussions might be on an intellectual and theoretical level, very often they are of no real use to real people and to reforming the structures that need to be reformed. I confess to great impatience about this.

Luis Gutierrez | 5/15/2014 - 11:26pm

Ann, there is a huge amount of inertia in a 1.2 billion people community. My heart goes out to you, and I share your impatience, but all we can do is to keep praying and working for what we honestly believe is right and God's will. We can have sure hope that the Spirit will prevail in the long term. Other than that, I really don't know what else to say. We must keep trying to imitate Jesus, the Forgiving Victim.